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The Proven Holiday Readiness Game Plan: An Interview with an Akamai Retail Expert

On this very calm Thanksgiving Eve, it's a perfect time to share with you all a "behind the scenes" look at how Akamai's commerce experts are engaging with retailers in preparation for this weekend.   As Akamai is working with 96 of the IR100, we have broad visibility into holiday readiness preparations and what retailers are really expecting this season.  To get a sense of what's to come this weekend, who better to talk with than Jim Stathopoulos, who manages the Akamai's Commerce Services Engaged team.  This is Jim (and it is likely the only time you will see him in a suit):

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[Lelah] Can you tell us what you do at Akamai, and give us some insight into your team?

[Jim] I am the manager of the professional services teams for Commerce Premium accounts in North America. While my team covers Retail in addition to Travel and Hospitality, we work specifically with 23 retailers and brands that have asked for a higher level of engagement with Akamai.  My team includes Engagement Managers and Project Managers who are highly consultative and work as part of an Integrated Account Team at Akamai throughout the year with these customers. They are closely aligned with Account Executives in the sales organization, Technical Support Engineers in Customer Care, and Solution Architects.  As it's a fully aligned and engaged team, it's a much more of partnership versus vendor relationship.

[Lelah] Holiday readiness doesn't happen overnight.  When does your team start engaging with retailers on holiday readiness with Retailers?  

[Jim] It starts early in Q1.  We give recommendations on holiday readiness initiatives as part of our quarterly reviews in Q1, and ensure that we are planning for resources throughout the year on both sides.  The actual technical work beings in June and July with an extreme ramp up period in September and October, ending in a lock down in early November.  It's typically a 3 - 6 month cycle.

It's not easy to identify a specific "holiday" these days.  In the US, Holiday is now, and then shipping days end around 15th or 18th of December.   In Canada it is Boxing Day.  In Europe the January sales.  For office suppliers it is back to school and for B to B, the new fiscal year.   

[Lelah] So what is your team specifically working on with Retailers?  What are the goals and the most important activities?

[Jim] We have four key architecture goals - performance, offload, security, and visibility.  To create plans around each of these goals we have to start with an understanding of the marketing events.  What are the biggest marketing events?  What are the key clickstreams?  Will visitors be coming from mobile emails to the desktop?  Are they entering through doorbuster microsites?  What are the year over year traffic patterns and traffic projections?

For offload and performance, we can then create a holiday caching strategy that targets these events and patterns.  Every retailer we work with has a specialized, more aggressive caching strategy than their normal day to day operations.  The goal is to let Akamai's platform serve as much of their content as possible - microsites, homepages, product pages, mobile pages, redirects, etc.  We also need to understand their security concerns.  Then we work with them to load test, identify bottlenecks, and see what else we can do.

The operations of the day are very important too.  We always recommend they plan for the unplanned.  We can do all the planning and coding and testing but it's impossible to have everything entirely known.  Especially these last two years with attack traffic.  So we dig into failover strategies, disaster recovery environments, our traffic throttling application called Shopper Prioritization.  Then we'll run simulations - what happens if your database goes down?  Or your whole site?  We'll practice using SPA [Shopper Prioritization Application] to throttle end users in a worst case scenario.  

We also want to make sure we're fully partnered not just with the customer but with their other vendors and partners as well.  If you're on a conference bridge at 2am then its good to know who everyone is and what their roles and responsibilities are.

[Lelah] What Akamai products are most commonly leveraged for Holiday?

[Jim] We tend to be the team that thinks solutions rather than products but most of the capabilities we are leveraging for caching and performance are provided by DSA [Dynamic Site Accelerator] and Mobile Accelerator, or AQUA Ion for those that have our newest platform launched last month.  SPA [Shopper Prioritization Application] is one of the most critical applications our customers use.  It's an application run on Akamai only when you need it with a "waiting room" page that ensures you keep your customers engaged if something unexpected happens, while throttling end users on the back end.  They are all also using the KONA Security Solutions to handle attack traffic. For B to B sites and store applications it's TERRA Alta. And of course, Services and Support.

[Lelah] I know we haven't forgotten the attacks from CyberMonday 2010, and the exponential increase in attacks on retailers since then.  Has the increase in attack traffic changed how you engage for Holiday Readiness?

[Jim] Honestly we had to go back to school. These attacks started two years ago and took most of us by surprise.  We had to go out and become the experts.  It really rejuvenated the team as it was a new challenge.  We are now a Security company and my team has invested a huge amount of time in not just having the best security products but having the best security experts as well.   This won't be the first time something emerges out of nowhere, and my team is smart enough to take that head on too.

[Lelah] Mobile didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but has definitely emerged exponentially over the last two years as well.  How has that changed holiday readiness?

[Jim] Most importantly we want to apply everything that's happening on .com for mobile.  There needs to be a mobile caching strategy, as well as load testing and performance testing of mobile sites.  If they share the same backend then they have the same point of failure, so they need to be tested concurrently.

[Lelah] I know you're the guy who knows everything.  And while I'm sure you're not going to tell me who is going to go down, I bet you know that too.  Based on what you can share, what do you expect this weekend?  Will most of your customers stay up?  
[Jim] I have been doing holiday readiness at Akamai for 3 years and this is the easiest holiday season so far because of maturity of our customers and our solutions, and the depth of our relationships.   That being said, a few customers have transitioned to new platforms for either .com or mobile that are less mature and tested, and there is always the attack risk. So like any year, there will be an unknown component.

[Lelah] What should a retailer do if they are experiencing issues this weekend?  What if they are not a current customer?

[Jim] If it's during Thanksgiving football, call my boss not me.  Or even better, call your sales rep.  If you are not an Akamai customer don't worry about it, our sales rep will find you if you are having issues.

[Lelah] Now, seriously.  What should they do?

[Jim] We do focus on escalations and each customer has pre-defined holiday escalation paths.  Common across all of them is to contact customer care immediately and our Holiday Tiger team processes will kick in.  If you are not a customer then you can go to www.akamai.com for a live chat to put you in contact with the right person, or call 1.877.425.2624. 


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